Zen and the Art of Eating at a Buffet

Last weekend on our way home from the bike park, my family and I decided to eat dinner at a place called Ryan’s.

It’s one of those family-style chain restaurants with “Kids Eat Free Thursdays” on the letter board in a huge building that is likely to sit abandoned one day until it’s turned into a Sizzler.

I was thinking about the stuffed eggplant I planned on for dinner as the sun threatened to drop behind the mountains, worrying if the dish was too involved and if I’d have enough time to cook before someone (me) melted into a steaming heap of hunger and ennui. It was then we drove by Ryan’s and my husband jokingly asked if I wanted to eat there.

“Sure,” I said to both of our shock.

Nutritionally speaking, I’m not what one might call “chill”. Hygenically speaking, yes, of course. But when it comes to what my son and I put in our bodies (specifically gluten and dairy as gluten seemed to make the little guy extra-spastic and dairy gave him a rash), I’ve been quite the little Nazi.

I’m that mom running around at her own grandma’s funeral like a defensive lineman, batting pasta and cakes and Goldfish crackers out of the hands of my son and anyone who dare offer anything with trace amounts of gluten or dairy.

As for me, I was gluten/dairy free while breastfeeding, and since then I’ve been on every restrictive diet Google has to offer trying to balance my hormones.

The most recent of which was a juicing cleanse wherein I ate only some form of fruit or vegetable for about ten days. I’m not sure exactly how long this diet lasted as it is hard to count when you eat only plants.

I realize I brought up the juice fast in my last post, but don’t worry. This isn’t going to develop into a cross-fit scenario.

It’s just a bit of background to help you, my dearest reader, understand the culture-shock I underwent after consenting to go to this so-called Ryan’s in a split second decision based on the fact that I didn’t want to cook dinner, I felt my son’s behavior couldn’t get much worse than it already was from eating gluten, we we’re all covered in dirt and probably a little pee so we’d probably fit in great at Ryan’s, and hey, even a gluten/dairy Nazi needs a night off once in a while.

It was because of this reasoning that I soon found myself passing through the greasy, finger-printed doors of Ryan’s for the first and last time.

“It’s a buffet,” my husband said as we stood in the entrance. I detected a slight quiver in his voice.

Historically, I’ve been pretty unwilling to partake in buffets. I say it’s because they’re unsanitary, but really it’s because I have no ability to portion-control, and I feel financial pressure to fill my plate(s) with at least one of everything.

It’s stressful.

That’s the whole reason why I go out to eat, to have someone else make all the culinary choices for me. And do the dishes.

I shrugged, however, determined to be impulsive and CHILL and FUN.

Instead of a host stand at the entrance, a senior citizen stood behind a cash register, the kind with a place to rest your tray like you’d see at a middle school cafeteria. I announced to the woman that this was our first time, although I think she might have already figured that out by our cow-eyed-yokel-lost-in-the-big-city-gazes up at the menu board.

Also, we were pretty far away from “obese” on the BMI chart which had to be a dead giveaway.

She explained to us that we get to choose a drink, and then we could grab a plate and eat whatever we’d like from the buffet.

“Do you have any juice?” I said.

She told me they had apple juice, and I asked if it were 100%.

She looked at me like I asked whether or not she had a lollipops growing out of her butt, then politely charged me extra for the juice.

I grabbed a plate and my squirrel-on-the-last-day-of-Spring hoarding mentality kicked in instantly. That combined with a toddler on my hip with peculiar toddler-taste buds, I ended up with a plate of one taco garnished only with salsa (the other taco having fallen to the floor, which, judging by the gawks of patrons and employees alike, turned out to have been a big Ryan’s party foul), a hardened chicken pot pie, half a baked sweet potato, two pieces of quadruple-boiled broccoli (as a garnish), a piece of chicken, and some corn to make it healthy.

I took a deep breath as we sat down to eat our plate of dairy/gluten-lined mystery ingredients, trying not to think of the rashes and temper tantrums to come. Our server, or I guess I could say the server, sprinted to our table, wiped the sweat poring from his temples and introduced himself as Chicago.

He sounded like Chicago, his voice smokey and cracked like an old meat packing warehouse.

I didn’t understand why one would need a server at a buffet, but he was at our table every three minutes, chatting and sweating and refilling our waters, bringing my son, whose lips have never touched soda, a Sprite that no one ordered, proudly offering my husband a custom plate of ground beef shaped to look like a steak, and bringing us baskets of the most decadent, pillowy buns with sides of honey butter. I kept eating the buns and stroking on the butter, thinking somehow since they looked sooooo good they would eventually start tasting good.

And for a few minutes everyone seemed content, which doesn’t really happen when we go out to eat. Ever.

My husband happily people watched while my son sat nibbling on his pot pie. This lasted about four minutes until an evil woman disguised as a very nice and friendly woman approached our table tilting a tray of cookies in our faces, one of which was already pinched in her tongs and hovering above my son’s pot pie.

Welp! There goes dinner.

“Would you like a cookie?” she said as if she were giving anyone a choice.

I nodded and she dropped the cookie into my son’s general vicinity.

He held it in his two little hands and licked the tower of frosting with his eyes closed like he’d been baking in the desert and just been handed a canteen of cool spring water.

He got so excited he dropped the cookie, frosting-side-down, onto the floor.

I tried explaining why he couldn’t have it back as his eyes welled with tears and he repeated “chocolate,” over and over, each “chocolate” raising in pitch and desperation and threatening to turn into a tantrum.

FU@K IT!!!!! I thought in my pillowy bun-clouded mind.

And, figuring we’d never come back to Ryan’s again, I scooped him up and brought him to the dessert bar, which we hit up for the rest of the night.

By the end of the meal no one was talking. My son’s belly stuck out of his shirt and had vanilla soft  serve dripped all over it. I was about to eat my fifty-third roll when my husband asked what my favorite thing was, and I realized I couldn’t answer him because it all started to tasted the same and I seriously wondered if I’d ever be hungry again.

It seemed like the right time to go.

On the way out I briefly considered shouting a word like “yoga” or “non-GMO” to see if everyone would burst into a cloud of cake crumbs and land in the carpet next to my taco, but thought better of it.

Back at home my husband and I sat on the couch, each in a coma, as our son ran wind sprints through the house and did every yoga, ninja, and break dance move he knows until bedtime wherein he rolled over and over like a cement mixer and eventually passed out.

The next morning as I lay in bed struggling to muster up motivation to live, I thought how funny it was that the afternoon just before Ryan-ing, my husband and I we’re discussing a Splendid Table episode I’d heard on NPR about Buddihst monk food preparation. About how the monks are careful not to use onion because it can give bad dreams, or garlic because it increases the sex drive, and they don’t want the food to taste TOO good because they don’t want to become attached. And how each chef must be clear in their mind so they will be sure to prepare the food with love. They believe the love they put into the food to be the most important ingredient.

We agreed we wanted to add more love to our food. I even felt a little guilty at the thought of using sauce from a jar for my stuffed eggplant instead of some sort of sun-dried-tomato-pesto with porcini-procutto-lemon-pepper-veal-fettucini-foam sauce.

Then we went to Ryan’s.

But I think going to Ryan’s was its own form of zen-eating. Because we were all together, and the little guy actually sat in his seat instead of running away like he usually does. Because it was actually kind of FUN.

And you know what they say–even a Nazi’s gotta have a little fun sometimes.

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